The real impact of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement
Ever since US President Donald Trump announced on December 6 that his country was recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinians have been venting their rage in protests across the West Bank and Gaza. Twelve people have been killed so far in clashes with Israeli soldiers.
My usual Friday stakeout was at the Beit El checkpoint, between northern Ramallah and the Israeli settlement where the biblical story of Jacob’s dream is believed to have taken place.
Without fail, after midday prayers, young men their faces hidden behind scarves to stop them being recognised and to help protect them against the inevitable teargas would march towards the soldiers.
It usually didn’t take long before they started hurling rocks and stones at them. Sometimes immediately, sometimes after half an hour or so, the Israel Defence Force (IDF) would respond with rubber bullets and gas canisters.
“We hate Trump, we hate Israel,” was the popular refrain as American flags were burnt and posters of Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were trampled on.
The protests echoed around the world, from Turkey, Egypt and Yemen to as far away as Jakarta, Malaysia, Cuba, Ecuador, Chile and elsewhere.
As the third holiest site in Islam, any perceived threat to Jerusalem always strikes a deep emotional chord among Muslims.
But if one examines exactly what Trump said, he was, in fact, not changing the city’s status quo. “We are not taking a position on any final status issues,” he said in that now (in)famous 11-minute speech, but instead stressed that the city’s future was to be decided by the parties involved – Israelis and Palestinians.
Trump was, in fact, only recognising a reality that exists on the ground, namely that Israel’s government and ministries sit in Jerusalem.
To be fair, many countries that criticised Trump’s announcement at the United Nations resolution that followed, not only recognise this reality, but also actively participate in it by holding meetings with the Israeli government in West Jerusalem.
Last Friday, I drove around the West Bank looking for trouble. There were a couple of die-hard youngsters burning a tyre in the Palestinian village of Burin, south of Nablus, where a 16-year-old boy had earlier died after being shot by soldiers. Aside from some clashes in Gaza, it was mostly quiet.
And so, as the protests now start to die down and less attention is paid to the furore on the streets, the real impact of Trump’s declaration will slowly come to the fore.
Most Israelis lauded the US president’s break from decades of US foreign policy. Netanyahu went as far as to call his speech one of the key milestones in the history of Zionism, alongside the Balfour Declaration, the founding of Israel and the liberation of Jerusalem.
But there’s no denying it comes at a price. Trump, the businessman, knows this better than most.
What if, down the line, the American president puts pressure on Israel to accept concessions in a peace deal with the Palestinians? Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to say “no” after Trump went out on a limb for him. (It is worth adding, though, that many Israelis I speak with say they don’t need Trump or the Americans or anyone, for that matter to “give” them Jerusalem as their capital).
Was Trump trying to fulfil an election promise or did he perhaps just want to shake things up? Either way, his speech so infuriated both the Palestinian street and leadership that there’s no appetite among them to think outside the box and respond to Trump’s reshuffling of the deck of cards – if, indeed, that is what he was trying to do.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected outright the American president’s peace “deal of the century”, calling it the “slap of the century”.
The Palestinian leadership’s old guard is perplexed and believes now that its decades-long approach of working with the Americans towards a two-state solution has failed. This is unfortunate for Israel because these were the leaders who ignored calls for violence from the street and stayed at the negotiating table. For them, the US has lost all credibility as an honest broker.
Where does this leave Israel? Who will, or can, replace Washington Moscow? While the Russians might not even want the role of mediating between Israelis and Palestinians not least of all because it seems doomed to failure many would argue Israel was better off when the US was in charge of the negotiations.
Even more, Trump’s statements have put America’s erstwhile regional allies in a bit of a fix. Washington – and Jerusalem need Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo as part of their alliance against Iran. While these countries are happy to be part of such an alliance, they’re in a difficult position when thousands flood their streets, outraged against Trump’s remarks.
Arab governments will always respond to anything that’s connected with Jerusalem – not least because, when necessary, it helps divert attention away from problems at home.
What’s unfortunate for Israel is that Trump’s comments have put the country in conflict with those in the Arab world to which it was moving closer.
Netanyahu ignored the global protests, as did Trump, and most Israelis were indifferent.
But at the end of the day, nothing has changed on the ground – and it is unlikely to – until Trump moves his embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That will change the status quo and be in violation of UN resolutions.
But until that happens, those who are celebrating Trump’s speech would do well to reflect on what he really said, and whether the fallout is worth it.
Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.